If you are a Honda fan looking for a silver lining from the Disastrous Indycar race at St. Petersburg, I will get it out of the way right now:
Honda is winning the manufacturer’s race because Chevy had to make unauthorized engine “repairs” post-race to all but one of its cars. Read about Chevy engine penalties
UPDATE #2: This is the official statement from Chevy:
“We identified a batch of valve springs that, due to a process change at one of our suppliers, may fracture before the full mileage requirement,” said Jim Campbell, Chevrolet U.S. Vice President Performance Vehicles and Motorsports. “We notified IndyCar of the issue and obtained approval to change the valve springs. Eleven of our 12 engines were updated following the St. Petersburg race. Based on lower accrued mileage, the current plan is to address the 12th engine after the race at Barber Motorsports Park.”
Under Indycar rules, anytime you have to break a seal to repair an engine before it reaches 2,500 miles of service (tests, practices and races), the manufacturer gets hit with a 20-point penalty. When the 12th engine is changed, they will be hit with another 20-point penalty. My guess is that this is probably the engine in Sage Karam’s car. He’s not scheduled to race this weekend.
There is a penalty for taking the valve covers off, or breaking any of the other numerous seals on the engines. Chevy had to remove the valve covers in this case. By the way, when they make a change like this, they are only allowed to replace like for like. They are not allowed to upgrade anything other than for reliability reasons. There is not supposed to be a performance advantage. Given that replacing the valve springs COULD yield a performance advantage (or disadvantage), I would expect that Indycar tested the performance of the old spec valves and the new spec valves to make sure there was no advantage.
The first chance to upgrade engines without taking a penalty is for the Indy 500.
The result of all of those penalties (20 points per change) means that Honda now has a 162-point lead. Which is about two races, by the way.
Other than that, things are pretty sad. The Hondas seemed to be getting better mileage than the Chevys. Ryan Hunter-Reay pitted on Lap 77 and Marco Andretti pitted on lap 78. Both lasted until the finish on lap 110. RHR went four green laps farther than any of the Chevys, which is significant.
And the Honda engines seem to still have more grunt coming of slow corners than the Chevys. This is pretty consistent throughout the sector times for all the practices and qualifying. Also, Honda trap speeds, overall, were a bit better than most of the Chevys.
Finally, it looks like Graham Rahal has a bit of his mojo back. If he had not been penalized for unnecessarily running into the back of Charlie Kimball (whose car was already crippled) he would have been the top finishing Honda, possibly in fourth place. He was able to pass cars and was the only Honda in the race keeping pace with the best Chevys.
That’s the end of optimism. The state of the Honda program is best seen in the results of qualifying: Penske-Chevy first through fourth. Takuma Sato the best Honda in Fifth. Three other Hondas were 8th (Ryan Hunter-Reay), 11th (Simona de Silvestro) and 12th (Marco Andretti). Honda had very little chance winning the race with its best cars starting 5, 8, 11, 12.
The odds of Sato passing four cars in a street race are pretty slim, unless there is some calamity ahead, which there wasn’t, or you catch yellow flags just right, which he didn’t. The odds of RHR getting anywhere are even worse, so there you are.
Clearly Job One has to be qualifying better. To have any chance at all on a street or road course you have to get at least three in the top six. At most courses that comes down to speed through the corners. At St. Pete, the Hondas weren’t even all that close. Hunter-Reay was 0.11 seconds out of the fast six. That sounds like a little, but on a street race it’s almost half a city block. Simona was more than 3 tenths out and Marco was more than 4.
Part of qualifying in Indycar is getting through Round 1, where you have to be one of the top six to advance. It’s tough to get three in the top six when you only have four in the top 12. Graham Rahal clearly underachieved when he did not advance. He was less than a tenth out of advancing from his group. Munoz and Hinchliffe could have advanced if they had been in the other group. If Rahal could have advanced and if Sato could have kept his front wing intact, Honda might have had two cars in the top six at the end of the race.
But none of the Hondas were close to any of the Penske-Chevys (neither were any of the other Chevys). And that has to change or Honda will never win a road-street course race.
Looking ahead to the Grand Prix of NOLA in New Orleans this weekend, it’s hard to be real optimistic. The Chevys dominated in the test at Barber with its sweeping curves. And Nola looks like Barber with longer straights and more passing areas. “Nola Track Map”: http://gpofnola.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/NOLA15-Wayfinder-v11-3-27-15.jpg .
So, what’s being done? There was not a lot of time to test between events, but Andretti did run Ryan Hunter-Reay’s car driven by Matt Brabham on the Oval at Indianapolis Raceway Park. Brabham tests at Raceway Park Why test at Indianapolis Raceway Park, a small 0.686-mile oval? Well, it is convenient to Indy where Andretti is based. And getting miles on the engine could help RHR at Indy (more on that in a future post). So if you were going to film for a commercial, that would be a good place to do it.
Hopefully, they gained some knowledge from it. The Achilles heel of the Andretti cars in particular has been speed through corners (where the Chevy seems to produce more downforce). The Oval at Raceway Park is flat, and the turns are about the same radius as the turns at both NOLA and Barber. So, maybe they were trying something.
The other major thing that HPD might try at NOLA is to close down the cooling inlets in the aerokits to reduce drag. Unlike Barber and St. Pete, NOLA is going to be VERY HIGH SPEED . Possibly the fastest road course in the USA . If the Honda Aerokit has a drag advantage and the Honda Engine is going to run cooler than the Chevy, then this is the place where that will show up. Not necessarily in the lap times, but in the trap speeds.
One can only hope. Because if nothing has changed, it’s going to be a real long month for the Honda teams with races at NOLA , Long Beach and Barber. Of the three, I would think NOLA is the best shot for Honda teams. But they need to find the right balance for a base setting with the new aerokit. Some of the teams are getting better, particularly Foyt, Rahal and SPM . But Andretti is clearly lost. That has to change. But it’s hard to make any progress at 90-minute event practices.
Or perhaps it’s better to try to learn at the actual events. One of the more interesting things to come out of the St. Pete weekend was that several teams that tested at Sebring ahead of St. Pete said that what they learned at Sebring was no help when setting up for St. Pete. This included Andretti and KV. Both thought they made breakthroughs at Sebring. Both looked like they were standing still during the first practices at St. Pete.
One of the things we did learn from St. Pete is that there was no sandbagging. All the teams need to gather as much information as they can right away. So if the weather is good, the first practices will be a good indication of where things stand.